The 60s: Comedy’s Mid-Life Crisis

The title of this post refers of course to the 1960s, not the age of the performers, although that certainly applies as well. I struggled mightily with what to title this piece. The real subject is how major American television comedians of the 1950s and early ’60s did not to turn out to be major movie comedians in the aftermath, but I defy you to distill that into fewer words (I don’t, actually; please don’t actually do that). Anyway, we’ll get to that interesting phenomenon in a moment.

First, a look at what areas were vital in comedy.

The ’60s was an age of auteurism in comedy. This was, I think, naturally an outgrowth of the birth of the New Wave. In a way that it had not truly been since the silent era, film became a director’s medium, and we can easily conjure the decade by listing directors who made amazing, ground-breaking or successful comedies: Jerry Lewis, Tony Richardson, Stanley Kubrick, Billy Wilder, Blake Edwards, Richard Lester, Mike Nichols, et al. And nearly all of Sid Caesar’s former writing staff began to make their mark during this decade either as film directors or screenwriters (and/or adapted playwrights): Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris. Many of their films were either experimental or otherwise self-conscious (as in the many comedies that were either overtly or in essence tributes to the silent era.)

Market segmentation was taking place. On the one hand, there were family comedies (such as Disney films starring the likes of Dean Jones, Fred MacMurray and Hayley Mills). On the other hand, there were sex farces starring the likes of Tony Curtis, or “romantic” ones with Doris Day and Debbie Reynolds. In between, there were movies for teenagers in the form of beach party musicals (which also often had nods to silent comedy).

And it was hugely a time of transition. Very few of the older “classic” comedy stars were still around. Largely a result of their tv success, The Three Stooges got a huge burst of new recognition in a new series of features for children. Bob Hope was still coasting along, making movies for grandparents. Jerry Lewis, of course, was a star as well as a director, and he was out there more than ever during the decade. But for the most part, the comedy stars who had started out as marquee names prior to the television era were either gone entirely or (like Buster Keaton or Groucho Marx) doing cameos and bit parts.

So there was a lot going on in comedy in the 1960s. But what is interesting to me is what didn’t happen. The top tv comedians of TV’s first Golden Age, the period just prior, did not flourish in cinema, at least as comedians. In fact, as a whole, they performed rather weakly in this environment. They each had their individual peaks, but the general tenor of their output is lackluster, even negligible. The TV comedy stars weren’t, properly speaking, movie comedy stars.

What do I mean by a comedy star? Nothing very complicated: a string of several starring, successful comedy vehicles. I’m not saying any of these comedians were failures or that they didn’t have any hit movies. I’m saying they didn’t do what might have been expected, which is conquer and dominate the medium. To help bring it into focus, some examples of what it might look like. Red Skelton almost did what I’m describing, but kind of went in the other direction. Having launched his movie and TV careers at the same time, his movie output was ambitious and voluminous. But it was a lot of work and he was out of gas by the time the 60s arrived, and stopped doing movies so he could focus on his TV show. So the timing is off. But Skelton was a TV star, and his movie career looks like what a comedy movie career should look like. A better example (the only true American example I can think of) was the career of Don Knotts, who went from being a star on Steve Allen’s shows and The Andy Griffith Show to starring in a series family comedy movies (The Incredible Mr. Limpet, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, The Reluctant Astronaut, etc). Dick Van Dyke also made several family comedies and musicals, although his career was much more diversified; one tends to think of him more as an actor than a comedy star in his later years. From England, two other examples of TV comedy stars who became proper movie comedy stars: Peter Sellers and Terry-Thomas.

But for the most part, American TV’s comedy heavyweights seemed to flounder in movies that followed their television stardom. These are who I’m thinking of.

As “Kappy” in “The Oscar”

Milton Berle

Berle of course was “Mr. Television”, and one of the earliest stars of the medium. And not just one of the stars, but so big a star that for awhile his show actually positively impacted the sale of television sets, and negatively impacted businesses (e.g. restaurants) that were open when his show aired. But having started out in 1948, by the mid ’50s even Berle’s tv career was in decline. And he never became a proper movie comedy star. There are hints of what have been. His semi-autobiographical film Always Leave Them Laughing (1949) is one of his few starring vehicles and it certainly gives him a chance to stretch its legs, although his character is so unsympathetic that it almost amounts to a suicide. And, I believe, he gives his best performance as a screen comedian in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) — also true of two of the other comedians listed below, Sid Caesar and Phil Silvers, which goes to the point perhaps that what was lacking was will and vision on the part of producers and directors. Berle plays supporting roles (and does great work) in The Loved One (1965), The Oscar (1966), and The Happening (1967), and is kind of the star of Howard Morris’s Who’s Minding the Mint? (1967) although that’s really an ensemble comedy. By 1968 Berle was 60, and, though he continued to have supporting parts and cameos for the rest of his career, you couldn’t have called him a movie comedy star, properly speaking.

Making too darned many breakfasts in “Yours, Mine, and Ours”

Lucille Ball

Lucille Ball’s movie career was also disappointing. Naturally she had been in films since the 1930s and even starred in some since the 1940s, but just a few. I Love Lucy made her a television star in 1951, and, remarkably she remained a TV star through 1974. In a way, she didn’t NEED to make movie comedies. But she did make a few, and none of them really capture the magic of what she does on the small screen. The Long, Long Trailer (1954) and Forever Darling (1956) come closest, as she co-stars with Desi, so they’re kind of like I Love Lucy episodes padded to feature length. Oddy, for so strong, powerful and talented a woman, Ball doesn’t allow herself opportunity to shine in her screen comedies of the post-Desi era. In The Facts of Life (1960) and Critic’s Choice (1963) she is paired with Bob Hope, and she turns in good performances but it’s not like Hope was going to allow her to outshine him, and he was getting pretty sedate onscreen himself by this point. In Yours Mine and Ours (1968) she is paired with Henry Fonda, again a major star, and not exactly a laugh riot. She has some slapstick opportunities, but remember what she was CAPABLE of. Her TV shows gave us dozens of classic, memorable moments. Her films do not. In 1974, she starred in a screen version of the musical Mame for which she was badly miscast. TV remained her true medium until the end.

Sid Caesar in “The Busy Body”

Sid Caesar

Again, one of the top variety comedians of the 1950s, who turns in such a great performance in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. He went on to star in just two comedies, both produced by William Castle in 1967, The Busy Body and The Spirit is Willing. They’re both okay. I’d gladly watch them any time. But that’s it! A comedy genius, and that’s all of his starring movies! And think of what his writing staff went on to do! In the ’70s he had a pretty good career as a supporting actor in films like Airport 1975, Silent Movie, Fire Sale, The Cheap Detective, Grease and Grease 2, and The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu. You’d be forgiven for expecting more, yeah? Later it emerged that he’d had a drinking problem that likely hampered his career. Well, we all lost by it!

“Skidoo”

Jackie Gleason

Today, the Great One is remembered chiefly for his greatest creation, The Honeymooners. The public (the younger public especially) forgets that he was a star of TV variety shows as well pretty much for the entirety of the 1950s and ’60s. On top of that he had an interesting film career. And of all those on this list, he’s the only one whom could be said to have become a proper movie comedy star, although that didn’t happen until 1977, which is why we put him on this list. In 1977 he had a killer turn in Smokey and the Bandit, which led to a succession of starring comedy vehicles until his death a decade later. And that’s what I’m talking about. And unlike the others on this list (except Berle maybe), he showed himself to be artistically ambitious in the medium of cinema, at least initially. He had two flashy supporting dramatic roles in The Hustler (1961) and Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962). And Gleason’s one proper true comedy star comedy, his ambitious “silent” movie Gigot (1962), which he initially wanted Orson Welles to direct, but the studio wouldn’t allow, so it was helmed by Gene Kelly. The movie didn’t do well, so Gleason wasn’t able to follow it up with similar vehicles of the type one can envision. He came close to cracking it, though, with Papa’s Delicate Condition (1963), Skidoo (1968), How to Commit Marriage (1969) with Bob Hope, and Woody Allen’s Don’t Drink the Water (1969), directed by Howard Morris. But somehow these films all feel like miscalculations, hiding Gleason’s light under a bushel.  He was often cast as middle aged, middle class men, angry, irritated and bewildered but somehow not as funny as he was capable of being. He needed big characters to shine. Fortunately towards the end of his life he got them, but in the ’60s he was roughly in a league with the others on this list when it came to his movies.

“Follow That Camel” (as if a caption were required)

Phil Silvers

Bilko (1955-59) was a tv classic, of course, and Silvers had been a familiar face in movie comedies since the 1940s. And he gives such a memorable comic turn in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. You might expect so talented a comedian to carry some major comedy films. In 1962 he turned down the chance to play Pseudolus in the original Broadway production of A Funny Thing Happened in the Forum and that proved a crucial misstep. The part went to Zero Mostel. When it came to the screen in 1966 Mostel retained the role of course and Silvers played a smaller part. He’s also in one of the British “Carry On” comedies Follow That Camel (1967), the Italian co-production Buena Sera, Mrs. Campbell (1968) and the Disney comedy The Boatniks (1970). Silvers had problems, though. He suffered from chronic depression and had a gambling problem. In 1962 he had a nervous breakdown. In 1972 he had a stroke. These things will slow you down.

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In the 1970s, screen comedy properly began to find its legs again, largely as the result of those above-mentioned Ceasar alum, and, later in the decade, SNL alum. And some other folks too. But that’s another post.

 

 

 

One comment

  1. Someone pointed out that Sid Caesar’s TV writers (from the ’50s) always called him a genius… but by and large never worked with him again. A very difficult genius.

    Like

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